Lessons from the Thresher

Tina Haapala |

A little over 50 years ago, on April 10, 1963, during monitored tests close to her test depth, surface ships lost contact with the USS Thresher (SSN-593). She had imploded with a loss of all hands. The fact that we have lost only two nuclear submarines is likely due to the lessons learned from the tragedy.

Submarines using nuclear propulsion systems were in their first decade. The loss of the Thresher was less than 9 years after the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) became the first submarine “underway on nuclear power.” The Navy was still in its infancy learning how to build and operate these complex beasts.

This column is too short for an explanation of what went wrong, but those with military experience or knowledge know that some of the most advanced systems are used on front-line ships and aircraft. With anything new sometimes things don’t work exactly as the tests showed they would. Or it becomes a Murphy’s Law situation-- worse than the worst case scenario they imagined on the drawing board.

When this happens on a ship or aircraft, or it involves systems that tend to blow up if not contained (the military has a lot of these), people often die. That in itself is a tragedy, but it is more so if we don’t learn from the incident. Fortunately the men of the Thresher did not die in vain.

Operating procedures were changed that would later aid other submarines to recover from equivalent circumstances. An entire new program known as SUBSAFE was created. It focused solely on the ability of a submarine to remain water tight, and if the hull was compromised (known as flooding) the ship could get back to the surface. The program is expensive and tedious, but since its inception, no SUBSAFE qualified submarine has been lost.

But what does this have to do about money? Simple: Though an event involving your finances or investments is not likely to send you to the bottom of the ocean, it can derail your hopes and dreams. Along the way, plans you make will break down. “Sure things” will become disappointments. “Enough” turns out not to be. And “safe,” well… you know.

Stuff happens to all of us in all aspectsof our lives. This, while not always tragic, is nevertheless not a lot of fun. Learning from others’ mistakes is best (especially when the consequences are dire), yet the school of hard knocks can be a great place for an education and experience is an excellent teacher.  

When you look back at your “oops” moments with money, what have you learned? Ever since humans saw the oceans and went down to the sea in ships some have not come back. This has not led to an avoidance of the water but a greater knowledge of how to work on and under the seas. Learning doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding, but rather understanding and mitigating the risks involved. 

This article was published under the title "Lessons of tragedy from 1963" in the WichitaFalls Times Record Newson April 28, 2013.